Our footprints are becoming stuck in concrete. More and more of us choose to live in urban hubs of interconnectivity where we work and play. Right now, our cities are responsible for 75% of the world’s energy use and over 80% of all greenhouse gas emissions.
If we want to work (and play) smarter, we are going to have to figure out a way of curtailing these powerhouses of carbon. Our cities are set to become denser; we also intend to build new ones. In many ways, it will be these urban environments that determine whether we successfully make the shift to more sustainable living.
Earlier this month I was invited by Siemens to tour the Crystal ahead of its official opening. The £30m glass-clad structure by London’s Royal Victoria Docks marks the world’s largest showcase dedicated to greening future cities. By building it, Siemens wants to position itself at the forefront of green urbanisation technology.
It’s a hugely impressive building and you need to set a day aside to explore it properly. But what really caught my eye was its ‘Future Cities’ zone – here you can sit and watch a short film about what life might be like for urbanites from 2030 onwards.
According to Siemens, it will be a digital paradise of convenience. Our lifestyles will become fluid as we seamlessly integrate working hours with free time. Built into our walls, touch-screen programming will allow us to order fresh produce from a community garden, book a shared car service or check real-time public transport connections.
Services will be decentralised, all operating on smart grid networks. On a windy night, the generation of surplus energy will immediately translate into lower energy prices for local communities. Networks will have the ability to communicate with us as well – for instance, directing car drivers to buy fuel when costs are low and sell it back to the grid when prices are high.
The very fabric of the city will be run by sensors. Nanoparticles engineered into building exteriors will automatically clean roof surfaces while facades trap CO2 and convert it to energy. High rise estates will evolve into rainwater harvesting systems and the River Thames could transform itself into a floating river park with the waterways carrying vessels powered by hydrogen and solar.
It’s futuristic thinking, but not science fiction. We already have the technology to make it happen. By 2050 it is estimated that 70% of all humanity will be living in an urban environment. Crucial then that these habitats are made more efficient, cleaner and better to live in.
What the Crystal does so well is to demonstrate that delivering a smart, sustainable city involves mapping out the groundwork around resource issues and how they interplay with economic and social well-being. As society becomes rapidly urbanised, it could well be that the fight against climate change will be won or lost in our cities.